Gender equality is a complex issue for schools, writes Michele Paule, as she looks at the gender equality issues that schools and curriculum mangers have had to address since the gender equality duty

It is now more than a year since the gender equality duty became compulsory for schools. But what has this meant to everyday practice? This article takes a look, beginning with a resume of gender equality issues that schools have had to address.

Despite the best efforts of schools, there are still inequalities in the aspirations, achievements and expectations of boys and girls.

Once lagging behind boys in most subjects except English, girls now dominate the exam leagues in all phases and subjects, and are more likely to go to university than their male counterparts – as the chart of GCSE results from 1962–2006 published on page 18 in the DFES 2007 document, Gender and education: the evidence on pupils in England evidences.

Given such trends, it is easy to see why male underachievement dominates much educational debate, to the extent that it is difficult to find much on the issue on the underachievement of girls. However, not only is girls’ underachievement more likely to go unmarked in school, but those girls who do achieve highly do not sustain their lead once beyond school: a range of studies (for example, ‘The gifted woman as impostor’, by Lee-Anne Bell, in Advanced Development Journal, January 1990) of pupils show that girls’ academic self-esteem decreases swiftly beyond school compared with that of males of similar abilities, and that the higher-achieving female school pupils will grow into women who earn less, occupy lower status positions and even take twice as long to pay off their student loans than men. Polly Toynbee, in her report Hard work: life in low-pay Britain, outlined which jobs are the most responsible for this:

The bottom 10 lowest paid jobs in England continue to be performed by women – those involving the three ‘C’s of cleaning, care-giving and catering. (Bloomsbury, 2003)

A frequently expressed sentiment in education about girls ‘overachieving’ is cause for concern (see, for example, Raising levels of achievement in boys, by Ronald Arnold, 1997, NFER). The underlying implication of this is that by ‘overachieving’ they are somehow disrupting the ‘natural order’, that this is a social problem that is part of the cause of boys’ underachievement, and that girls’ attaining better grades than they should be is something that must be curbed. These sorts of statements are as important to recognise as the patterns of grades themselves, in revealing the problems with gender equality in schools.

Complex issue

The issue of gender equality is complex, and is bound up with class and cultural expectations:

Findings on gender, social class and ethnicity

  • Gender is not the strongest predictor of attainment:
    • the social class attainment gap at Key Stage 4 is three times as wide as the gender gap
    • some minority ethnic groups attain significantly below the national average and their underachievement is much greater than the gap between boys and girls
  • Nonetheless, gender is an independent and significant predictor of attainment, and the gap in attainment at GCSE between boys and girls is relatively stable across the social class groupings
  • Consideration of social class and ethnicity alongside gender helps schools to identify which students are ‘underachieving’

(Source: Gender and education: the evidence on pupils in England, DfES, 2007)

Paying attention to gender equality encompasses more than just paying attention to exam achievements and subject choices. These are important indicators that a school has got it right, but they are just that – indicators. Test results and curriculum choices are the outward signs of underlying issues, in which differences in surrounding cultural and family expectations also play their part. For schools, the issues can include the gendering of expectations, including by pupils themselves, of achievement, behaviour and subject aptitude. Countering such expectations brings the big issues right into the heart of the classroom. Equal opportunities should always be at the centre:

Schools need to have plans in place which enable them to recognise the gender differences that do exist, to counter any disadvantage that may arise to either gender, and, where useful, even to exploit the differences to the advantage of both. In short, the focus should always be upon striving for equal opportunities for both genders. (Launchpad on gender issues, Westminster Institute of Education, 2006)

Is learning gendered?

There can be few teachers who would argue that there are no differences in the behaviour and learning patterns of boys and girls, and there would seem to be plenty of evidence to back them up – GCSE pass rates, exclusion rates and subject choices would all seem to support the view that boys and girls are wired differently when it comes to education.

But of what do these differences consist, and how might understanding them be helpful to teachers?

The evidence for cognitive differences between males and females is slight and irregular. For example, you may well observe that girls are less keen on maths and boys on French, but their preferences are more likely to be culturally acquired than biologically hard-wired.

It is true that patterns of difference have been found in brain functioning, but these do not hold true for all men and women, and rarely apply to left-handed people of either sex. It would also seem that boys have an advantage in the development of motor functions in the early years, and girls in language development. But such differences are far outweighed by the all-important developmental environment in which a child grows up. It is the different cultural expectations of girls and boys, right from infancy, that play the largest part in defining them as male or female in their learning behaviours by the time they reach your schools.

Ronald Arnold in his Launchpad on gender issues (Westminster Institute of Education, 2006) identifies inborn differences as only one of three key underlying causes of gender disparity in schools. The other two are:

  • acquired characteristics and self-perception, deriving from social and economic influences
  • the influence of the school and teachers’ attitudes.

While teachers may reasonably be less interested in the reasons for gender differences than in the outcomes, it is important that old gender stereotypes are not rehung on the new hooks of neuroscience and genetics, but are examined and addressed in schools.

Teachers and gender stereotypes

Teachers are just as susceptible to stereotyping as any other portion of the population. In their classroom and daily dealings with young people, their expectations and treatment of their pupils may be influenced by some of the behaviours listed below:

Is behaviour gendered?


  • Disciplined with deadlines
  • Liking for open-ended work
  • Taking care with presentation
  • Less confident in abilities
  • Opt-out more passively
  • Prefer verbal, empathetic, and imaginative work
  • Appearing feminine is paramount


  • Take a last-minute approach
  • Liking for structured, short tasks
  • Lack of care with presentation
  • Overconfidence in abilities
  • Opt-out more aggressively
  • Prefer spatial, sequential, logical work
  • Peer group approval is paramount

These patterns may help schools to recognise and reverse patterns of underachievement though addressing gender differences. However, they are just patterns. They do not apply to all girls and all boys, and they may apply to different degrees and vary over time and across subjects too. So while it may be helpful to consider typical behaviours when beginning to address gender in learning, it is also important to think of these characteristics as learning behaviours that may be recognisable in any pupil regardless of gender.

Discussing the different expectations arising from such patterns can also help schools to address more subtle and fundamental issues. Once the general patterns are recognised and aired, colleagues should also be aware that not all individuals conform to them, and should consider ways in which they themselves can help to counter negative gender stereotypes, expectations and behaviours. For a practical way to raise such awareness, see the box:

Example: raising awareness of gendered behaviour

Ask colleagues to construct their own ‘typical learning behaviours’ list for boys and for girls. This could be done in subject teams.

Then ask them to contribute:

  • examples of effective strategies and practices to counter gender patterns where these cause problems or which exploit them where they are beneficial
  • names and examples of boys and girls who do not conform to these patterns (stereotype busting) and discussions of how they can best be supported.

Offer the list for discussion to groups of pupils. Do they agree? Would they make changes from their perspectives? What measures would they find helpful in supporting their learning and/or resisting stereotyped pressures?

Gender equality and T&L

Made compulsory from April 2007 as part of the Equality Act 2006, the Gender Equality Duty (GED) has a single, simple overarching aim: to ensure that individuals have equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender. Few educators would disagree with such an aim, and many schools would point to existing policies and practices as evidence of their efforts to ensure that boys and girls have the same chances to develop their potential.

Your school’s Gender Equality Scheme (GES), required as part of the GED, will give you a framework to help you identify the issues, plan your developments, and evaluate your progress in teaching and learning (T&L) as a central part of fulfilling the Gender Equality Duty. This can be an aspect of your school’s broader development plan, or of subject development plans, but it must be flagged as the GES element.

For more guidance on how to meet the GED requirements, see The gender equality duty and schools: guidance for public authorities in England (EOC, March 2007).

Using data to identify issues
For curriculum managers, it is the gendered aspects of subject choice, teaching and learning and attainment that will be the focus of your assessment of how well you achieve gender equality in whole-school teaching and learning. To identify the core issues for your school, you can use data systems you already have in place to examine basic information on subject choices and test results. But you will also likely need to focus on new areas, for example analysing variations between classes – do some teachers seem to have particular success with, for example, underachieving boys, or girls, in maths? The box above gives a case example of how one school took a creative approach to examining data to point up gender equality issues it needed to address.

Other, more qualitative, forms of evidence can also reveal rich results. For example, peer observation of lessons is a regular feature of school life now. Observations are key opportunities to gather data regarding gendered behaviours and gendered participation patterns that underlie differences in achievement. Examples of focus points for such lesson observations are listed here:

Focus points of lesson observations

  • Different levels of boys’/girls’ attention spans Could tasks be timed differently? Is more structure needed, or more opportunity for independence?
  • Participation in questions and discussion Do teachers balance the number and type of questions asked between girls and boys? Are there differences in response patterns? For example, are boys more reluctant to raise their hands? Do girls resist open questions?
  • Variety and type of learning activities Do these elicit a more enthusiastic response from boys or girls? For example, in the maths classroom, which is a competitive environment with lots of timed activities that may favour confident boys but marginalise others, or in English, where a preponderance of imaginative or empathetic writing tasks can alienate boys; conversely, consistently choosing texts written by and for males can switch off girls.
  • Rewards and sanctions This can be a sensitive area, but there is plenty of research to suggest that boys are told off more frequently and severely than girls. Conversely, it is also a common pattern for girls’ lack of engagement to be tolerated because they are less likely to be disruptive, so their underachievement goes unchallenged. At the other end of the scale, the habitually quiet and hardworking pupil may rarely get praised, or there may be boys who are clearly uncomfortable with public praise. It can be very useful to observe which pupils receive what sanctions for what sort of behaviour, and why/how others are commended. Do gendered patterns emerge? If you are not sure, ask the pupils themselves.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has produced detailed guidance on how to gather and use information.

Role of personalised learning and the student voice
The Gender Equality Duty requires that ‘stakeholders’ are consulted – and this includes pupils, who can be your most useful informants. Promoting pupil voice is one way in which the GED marries well with the personalised learning agenda.

Talking about the issues that are important to boys and girls in your school is an essential first step; it will be impossible for teachers to address gender equality without developing an understanding of what conditions the simple fact of being a boy or a girl creates for pupils in their classrooms. Gendered self-perceptions can be central to learning behaviours and choices, and these can be either ameliorated or negatively reinforced by school and subject cultures.

Look for patterns of participation and gender across and between subjects. Do not forget that participation rates for extra-curricular events can also be revealing. Investigate further via pupil consultation. Factors you may wish to consider include numbers involved, age-related issues and how easy it may be for key informants to express their concerns. Approaches to ensure useful results include those set out below.

Understanding gender issues: pupil consultation methods

Questionnaires Questionnaires are great for large numbers, and anonymous ones can lessen student inhibitions. Administering questionnaires separately to boys and girls can also help. Multi-choice answers help reluctant writers, while space for further comments gives all the chance to add their participant perspectives. Do not forget that trialling questionnaires on a small number of pupils before general use saves many a pitfall – for example, it can flag unclear questions or sensitivities with phrasing.

Useful question types can include:

  • what they like to learn
  • how they like to learn
  • features of a good lesson
  • features of good teaching
  • barriers to learning.

Focus group interviews
Gathering small groups of invited participants can give you an indepth view of the issues.Your sample group must be able to represent the range of issues you are looking at, and feel comfortable discussing issues with you and with each other.

Teaching and learning strategies
Is there such a thing as boy- or girl-friendly pedagogy? Certainly there seem to be differences in learning preferences, but before embarking on any changes to teaching, grouping, testing arrangements and so on, it is vital to remember that:

Strategies to raise boys’ achievement, if successful, are also likely to raise girls’ achievement, and thus perpetuate the gender gap. It has been argued that any strategy to raise boys’ achievement should not be done in a way that could be detrimental to girls’ social or academic progress. There is not a case for boy-friendly pedagogies – pedagogies that appeal to and engage boys are equally girl-friendly. (Gender and education: the evidence on pupils in England, DfES, 2007)

There are some strategies that may point the way to classroom success for a range of learners, although the diagnostic route may be via gendered learning preferences. So, teachers could begin exploring gendered preferences for subjects, particular activities or preferred learning style, but use insights they gain to improve rigour and variety in lessons for all learners. The table below contains examples of strategies that teachers have found effective in supporting the attainment of both boys and girls.

Effective teaching and learning strategies

Gendered learning issue
Exemplar responses
Boys’ language development is slower than that of girls, especially those with summer birthdays
  • Provide activities designed to extend vocabulary and range of sentence structures
  • Encourage discussion in which language is explicitly modelled/explored
Boys’ reading of fiction can tail off at adolescence, when they start to prefer non-fiction
  • Use age-sensitive diagnostic tests
  • Explore and invest in library texts likely to appeal to boys
  • Give non-fiction texts time and status in class
  • Explore conventions of sophisticated graphic novels – especially literary adaptations
  • Use audiobooks with readers to draw them in
Boys’ musculature and patterns of hormonal surges make it difficult for them to sit still and sustain concentration
  • Work in opportunities for movement and kinaesthetic learning
  • Develop a range of activities in lessons
Long-term deadlines in coursework favour girls’ organisational skills and motivation type
  • Set work in a series of shorter chunks
  • Provide learning mentors to help pupils with organisation
Masculine culture can make boys uncomfortable discussing their own feelings and those of others
  • Give opportunities for analytic rather than empathetic approaches to texts
  • Focus on author’s technique in conveying feelings rather than on the feelings themselves
Peer group culture discourages effort and praise-seeking
  • Discuss preferred method of praise
  • Exploit competitiveness – make activities into contests
  • Provide older male student mentoring
Girls Girls
While girls read avidly, they tend to avoid challenging texts
  • Discuss reading preferences and set alternatives
  • Encourage girls to create their own challenging reading lists
Narrow experience of non-fiction texts limits recognition and their own stylistic range
  • Ensure exposure to a greater range of non-fiction through:
    • varying whole-class texts
    • reading targets
    • book boxes including, for example, female journalists, travel writers, war correspondents, historians, (auto)biographies.
Girls have a tendency to write at length but with an imprecise focus
  • Provide activities concentrating on convergent thinking in the planning stages
Girls often lack confidence in discussion
  • Assign clear roles in activities
  • Select appropriate pairings/groupings
Spend time on presentation at the expense of content/quality
  • Focus on purpose of initial drafting
  • Encourage self-annotation of work
  • Display less attractive but more engaging work
  • Include timed activities
  • Refrain from praising presentation
  • Articulate learning targets in terms of the issue
Girls write too much for short-answer questions Teach précis as a specific skill
Their writing lacks focus and lack pace
  • Consider the function of dialogue, description, action and so on in the planning of activities
  • Plan activities around the modelling of effective writing

The DfES (2003) publication Using the National Healthy School Standard to raise boys’ achievement has further examples. It states that:

  • peer support for learning, in terms of paired writing, paired marking or talking partners, can lead to significantly improved boys’ achievement
  • active participation in well structured groupwork, in teacher-selected, mixed-gender groups, will enable boys to learn more about listening and reflection, and girls to learn more about risk-taking and assertiveness.

Organising learning
A popular response to gendered attainment differences over the last decade has been that of organising single-sex groups. The argument for this has been that teachers can more easily address the issues and learning preferences of boys and girls in gendered groupings, which also have the added advantage of less distraction from the opposite sex.

However, the jury is still out on the benefits of single-sex groupings. While there is some evidence that pupils find the atmosphere more conducive to learning, other findings also warn that such groupings can merely perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce areas of weakness, although only concentrating on areas of strength. Laddish cultures can also be strengthened rather than tackled in such groups.

Because the strategy of single-sex grouping is often introduced to address male underachievement, it has also been found that it is in the boys’ groups that teaching strategies are often adapted and improved, while the girls get the same diet as before, thus limiting potential improvement for them. So it is important that regrouping is not seen as an answer in itself, and that any such measures are carefully evaluated and benefits shared among all pupils.

Tackling root causes

The information gathering, planning, implementation and evaluation steps recommended in the GED will help curriculum managers to identify the key issues for them and from there begin to tackle the root causes. There are unlikely to be simple solutions, but important steps along the way will involve managers and colleagues in:

  • recognising the factors underlying differences in gender and performance
  • exploring attitudes and expectations within schools
  • exploiting local knowledge of contexts and of barriers to gender equality
  • consulting learners as well as colleagues
  • sharing expertise and strategies among and between subject areas.

Related case study: An equal opportunities officer describes how she monitors policy and promotes community cohesion in her school.

Michele Paule, Principal Lecturer, Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University. Michele provides consultancy, including for schools, and her research focuses on cultural constructions of gender and ability